The Missouri General Assembly begins its 2018 session on Wednesday. By the time it ends in mid-May, voters will know if their representatives are strong enough to stand up to Gov. Eric Greitens to make Missouri better.
Across a range of issues, legislators can take positive steps in 2018 to improve the lives of their constituents, while bringing more transparency to their decisions.
Ultimately, many consequential decisions may rest in the hands of voters. Lawmakers can and should put questions on the 2018 ballot, including a fuel tax increase and a tobacco tax hike.
But lawmakers also have an opportunity to act on other important questions, including ethics reform and the budget.
▪ Ethics reform
Legislators should try again to pass an ethics reform package.
Greitens likely will recommend taking action on ethics reform when he addresses the legislature in January. It will be a tough sell, given Greitens’ own ethics record in 2017.
In fact, the General Assembly should directly address the governor’s ethical shortcomings. Requiring dark-money political nonprofits to disclose their donors would be a good place to start.
Mandating disclosure of inaugural donors is also a good idea. And legislators should make clear that all electronic messages, including text messages, are public records.
Lawmakers also need to clarify limits on the governor’s authority to make interim appointments to boards and commissions before nominees are considered by the people’s branch of government. Greitens’ successful manuever to commandeer the state board of education should not be repeated.
The Missouri Ethics Commission needs additional staff and more authority to mete out punishments.
After that, the General Assembly can open its own records to Sunshine Law scrutiny. Finally, legislators should limit donations for state candidates and ban lobbyist gifts.
▪ Health care issues
Lawmakers should develop a prescription drug monitoring program that works. The opioid crisis has ravaged parts of the state, yet Missouri is behind in its efforts to combat the scourge.
Greitens’ drug monitoring program is too watered down to be effective in rural counties, where the drug crisis grows each day.
A robust program could help law enforcement and counselors improve the lives of patients and their families.
Missouri still should expand Medicaid coverage. It would protect rural hospitals and patients, with the federal government paying a large part of the cost.
▪ Legal reforms
It’s far past time for Missouri to increase funding for the public defender’s office. The state ranks 49th in the nation for public defender spending on a per-capita basis, a sorry statistic.
Prosecutors who resist additional spending for defendants’ lawyers seem more interested in winning cases than in finding justice. But the U.S. Supreme Court has said — and experience has shown — that quality respresentation is essential for a fair legal process.
Legislators also should take another look at SB 43, the measure making it harder to sue for discrimination on the job and in housing. Businesses like Amazon may be less willing to locate here because the state appears willing to tolerate discrimination.
We think it’s time to ask voters again to raise the fuel tax to pay for a roads program. The federal government may undertake its own infrastructure push in 2018, and Missouri should be positioned to provide matching funds if required.
The state cannot continue to delay basic infrastructure maintenance and repair. Voters should be given a chance to solve the problem.
And, while we’re at it, Missouri voters should be given an opportunity to raise tobacco taxes. Too many people are sick from smoking in Missouri, and a higher tax could save lives.
At least some of the money from a higher tax should be spent on smoking cessation programs.
Lawmakers fully funded the Missouri school formula in 2017. The General Assembly should do the same in 2018.
Lawmakers should increase support for higher education, too. Greitens’ decision to veto a plan to help UMKC build a performing arts pavilion downtown was a disappointment, and sadly, we have little hope the legislature will try again.
Charter schools need a thorough review before lawmakers extend the authority for them statewide. Comparisons to public school outcomes must be fair and rigorous.
No doubt other issues will arise in the weeks to come. But if lawmakers can reform Jefferson City and improve basic services and protections for Missourians, the 2018 session will be a success.